Ask the Art Professor: How Long Did it Take You to Jump Start Your Art Career after Graduation? What Was Your First Job?

Portrait Drawing

“How long did it take you to jump start your career after graduating from RISD? What was your first job?”

It took me about 6 years before I felt even remotely “legitimate” as an artist.  Looking back on it now, I know now that there were many mistakes I made terms of launching my career that could have been easily avoided had I thought things through more carefully at the time.  Mostly, I allowed the period between graduating from RISD and going to graduate school to last for too long.  While I am glad that I took some time off before going to graduate school, those four years were very hard in many ways, and things didn’t really start to take off for me until I got my master’s degree.

To begin with, I was wrestling with my transition from RISD to the “real world” which was extremely difficult.  I had been so accustomed to having the amazing artistic community at RISD, and then to have it all disappear one day felt like a traumatic loss.  I scraped by financially, (I was very insistent to make it on my own, with no financial help from my parents) had no studio space, made $376 per week, and lived in a crappy apartment in Boston.

My first job was as an art teacher at an after school program at a public elementary school.  Just picture 120 kids, ages 5-11, with about 9 teachers spread out between the playground and the school cafeteria everyday for 6 hours. It was complete pandemonium, and I cleaned up more pee and throw up that year than I care to remember. On top of that, I found the other teachers there unbearable with their petty concerns and catty conversations.  None of them had any shred of a clue about being a visual artist and I felt completely isolated from them.

David_portrait2

An early portrait drawing of mine from 1999

The job was exhausting and miserable, to the point that I found myself too physically and mentally wiped out at the end of the day to be able to make any art. My feeble attempts to make art at that time never went anywhere. I used to attend life drawing sessions to draw, I did the occasional self-portrait, I sketched friends from life, and I drew in my sketchbook when I could.  I had initially wanted to be a portrait painter, but after several unpleasant experiences with clients, I quickly gave up that initiative.  The artwork I was doing still looked like student exercises, and I couldn’t figure out a way to make the transition into work that looked professional. This went on for about a year and a half.

lisa

An early portrait painting of mine from 2000

Then one day I ran into one of my former RISD Professors in Boston.  He had been one of my favorite teachers, and so it was wonderful to see him again. He asked me how my artwork was going.  I was completely mortified and had no choice but to tell him that I wasn’t making anything. I was full of excuses:  I didn’t have a studio space, I couldn’t afford art supplies, my job was too demanding, etc.  He said, “Clara, you were one of my best students, you have to make your art.” He gave me his phone number and encouraged me to visit him and show him my new work.  That was the wake up call I sorely needed at the time. I felt creatively inspired for the first time since I had graduated from RISD, and was determined to stop making excuses and get to work.

kneeling_figure

An early figure painting of mine from 2000

I started hiring models privately and worked on oil paintings in my living room. This created a structure that I could work within in that when the model showed up,  I had no choice but to get to work. I knew that I was paying the models, so every minute was precious and I learned to work quickly and efficiently on my oil paintings.  I also bought a little $500 etching press and created drypoint prints (a non-acid intaglio printmaking technique)  in my apartment. The oil paintings depicted bizarrre, multi-limbed figures while the drypoint prints explored similar themes within the context of a human skull.

Although it makes my skin crawl right now to look at these works, (what was I thinking?!?)  these oil paintings and drypoints are what I consider to be my first professional body of work.  For the first time I was working serially and in a concentrated, focused manner. Making these works taught me how to be a professional artist. From time to time, I would visit my former RISD professor and he provided important feedback on my work that kept me inspired and going.  I continue to do this to this day.

I also started showing my work in local juried shows which was a good experience in terms of getting my work out there and seen. Although I was finally making my work steadily, I still felt like my career wasn’t developing the way I wanted it to. That was when I made the decision to go to graduate school.

three_jaws

An early drypoint print from 2001

Once I had my master’s degree, that’s when my career really started to happen.  I started teaching at the college level and through those school networks developed professional relationships with other artists. I had finally found the kind of serious artistic community that I had been searching for all this time.   I eventually stopped entering juried shows because I started to get invitations to show at exhibitions by other artists and curators at more high profile, regional venues. And most importantly, I had no problem making my artwork because of the experiences I had in the years before going to graduate school. 


ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. artprof.org features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

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PORTFOLIO VIDEO CRITIQUES
Prof Lieu offers video critiques on portfolios for students applying to art school and working artists. More info.


ART DARES
Every month, we assign a topic for you to respond to with an artwork. We give out prizes in several categories!  More info.


ASK THE ART PROF was a written column in the Huffington Post from about art related topics. Visit our Pro Development page.


Related articles
“How do I change careers to pursue my passion for art?”
“What are the career opportunities in fine art?”
“Should I pursue a career in fine art?”

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Ask the Art Prof: What are the Career Opportunities in the Fine Arts?

RISD Section 19

“I’m studying architecture and visuals art in college which I am about to finish this fall. I took courses in graphic design, typography, illustration, and print production but I am more passionate and interested in painting, drawing, sculpting and crafting.

I don’t know any jobs that involve my interests. I’ve been having a hard time finding career path in art other than graphic design or web design. What are the career opportunities in fine art?”

If you want to work in fine arts, you have to take the self-initiative to carve your own path. The possibilities are endless, and it’s up to each person to find a balance that allows for them to maintain their studio practice while paying the bills. In order to find that path, you have to figure out just how much you want to involve your art in your paying job.  Some people like to keep their art completely separate from their paying job, while others like their art to be a part of their paying job. There are disadvantages and advantages to both options.

A former professor of mine wanted to be a fine art painter, so he opted to work as a professional portrait painter. You would think that this job would be great, since you essentially get paid to be making oil paintings all day.  However, the reality is that being a portrait painter can be nightmarish.  His clients always seemed to have a vision of themselves that had nothing to do with what they actually physically looked like, and they complained left and right about every single petty detail. He found himself creatively bound by unreasonable demands made by clients, and having to pander to their desires. This basically dispelled any shred of creativity from the portrait paintings, making the process very mechanical and constrained.

Portrait Drawing

One of my peers went to art school for animation and upon graduation landed a full-time job at a small, independent animation studio.  Sounds perfect, right? Well, it turned out that his job animating all day long (and many times all night long)  was so demanding and exhausting that by the time he got home at the end of the work day, the last thing he wanted to do was animate more. The job was consuming to the point that he couldn’t muster up the mental space or the time he needed to work on his own animation projects outside of his day job. Within a year, he had left the studio.  On the flip side, I know plenty of people who work at animation or production studios who are plenty satisfied with their work there.

There can be advantages to separating your art from your paying job. If your paying job is completely unrelated to art, you’ll have more mental space and energy for your own studio practice.  One of my former professors told me that he was a movie theater manager when he first got out of school.  He said it was a great schedule because he could focus all of his energy on painting all day, and then go to work at night. A department head at an art school told me that he was a waiter for 15 years, and during that time, produced tons of paintings.  By contrast, he now paints very little due to the administrative demands in his position as a department head and professor of fine arts. While having a job that is completed unrelated to art works for some people, there are many of us who would not be willing to be a waiter for 15 years.

Intaglio Printmaking Project

One of the most popular options for many fine artists is to teach.  Teaching works for many fine artists because it’s a paying job that involves art without any hands-on labor.  There are many benefits to teaching:  you’re instantly plugged into an academic community, and you have all of the resources and facilities of the school at your fingertips.  I’m learning from my students all the time, I enjoy connecting with my colleagues when I’m on campus, and I milk the facilities and resources every chance I get.  Teaching keeps your mind active, getting you to process and think about artistic ideas which can in turn positively influence your own art.

Just remember that making your art is a lifelong pursuit, while jobs and careers come and go. You don’t have to give up making your art to pay the bills.


ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. artprof.org features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

FB    Youtube    Pinterest     Instagram    Twitter    email    etsy


PORTFOLIO VIDEO CRITIQUES
Prof Lieu offers video critiques on portfolios for students applying to art school and working artists. More info.


ART DARES
Every month, we assign a topic for you to respond to with an artwork. We give out prizes in several categories!  More info.


ASK THE ART PROF was a written column in the Huffington Post from about art related topics. Visit our Pro Development page.


Related articles
“How do I change careers to pursue my passion for art?”
“How long did it take you to jump start your career after graduation?  What was your first job?”
“Should I pursue a career in fine art?”

Ask the Art Professor: How Do I Change Careers to Pursue My Passion for Visual Art?

Final Crit

“What do you think of the idea of changing one’s career to pursue his/her passion for art?  I always thought that art was a very risky career move. I have a stable job right now that pays well but it’s definitely not fulfilling, and I just want to cringe with the thought that I’d be doing this for around 3 more decades.

I can imagine that if I do really want to switch fields, it’s going to be a gradual thing but then what are the steps in moving towards it? I like doing concept art and my goal is to finish a story I have now into a graphic novel.  Not necessarily to make money out of it, but just the fulfillment of immortalizing the story. If I were to switch into an art career, I’d be happy to do concept artwork, commissions and if I become really good at it, comics.”

Art can seem like a risky career move because we have to determine on our own what steps to take and what our ultimate paths will be.   By comparison, fields like medicine and law are relatively straightforward because those fields have pre-determined steps that must be taken in order to be able to be allowed to practice that profession.  If you want to be a doctor, you go to medical school, you do residency, etc. In the art field, it could not be more different for every artist out there.  That’s what’s so scary about it: the options for artists are infinite and can be incredibly overwhelming. The path is different for everyone.

Yes, you’re right that it is going to be a gradual process, one that evolves slowly over time, so patience will be key. In order to make that transition, I would advise that you keep your day job, while working on the initiatives listed below in your spare time.  Keep in mind that this is an ongoing process. The tasks listed below never really end- I know that I’m still doing #1, #2, and #4 all the time.   Even established professionals have to work on these tips below on a regular basis. And remember, very few people are able to support themselves exclusively on freelance work/their own independent projects in the art field.  The majority of artists hold onto their day job or have some other part-time job that is steady and reliable while they pursue their art career.

Intaglio Printmaking

1) Establish a strong, professional online presence. 
Buy a domain name (yourname.com is ideal) and set up a website that looks classy and professional. If you want examples of good artist websites, look up the websites of some professional artists whose work you admire and follow what they’re doing on their websites. Google yourself and see what comes up, hopefully your website is the first thing that shows up.  Make sure you are on at least one of the major social networking websites.  Facebook and Twitter are good places to start.

2) Have top notch, high quality artwork on your website.
Better to have a website that is more minimal with a few high caliber, polished pieces than a website that has lots of mediocre, half finished pieces. Many artists make the mistake of including everything they’re ever made on their websites, which consequently leads to a portfolio that looks scattered, aimless, and unprofessional.

The work on your website has to look focused and cohesive as a group of works. Be willing to edit your portfolio and remove pieces that don’t fit.  I see people all the time trying to present themselves as someone who works in five different fields of art, thinking that it will get them hired more quickly because of their versatility.  Actually, that approach has the opposite effect. It’s confusing to Art Directors and other professionals in the field if you market yourself in too many contrasting fields. They want to know what kind of results they’re going to get if they hire you for a job.

Gesture Painting

3) Say yes to every opportunity and occasionally work for free.
You don’t want to do this forever, but it’s a good way to get the ball rolling, and a way to add some examples to your portfolio.   I took a class with the illustrator David Macaulay my senior year at RISD, and I remember him saying that at the very beginning of his career, anything that anybody offered him he would agree to do. That was how he jump started his career. Once your career is more firmly established, you’ll eventually be able to be more selective about what jobs you take on.

4) Don’t wait for jobs and opportunities to come to you.
When you’re ready, start sending out hard copy, promotional postcards to companies or publications you want to work for letting them know that you’re available for work. Always send your materials to a specific person, don’t ever send it to “Editor” or “Art Director”. Be sure to do this at least twice a year so that you can keep people updated on your most recent work. One of my colleagues said he went to an Illustration conference where he heard another professional say that he started getting results when he stopped asking for things, and started offering things.


ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. artprof.org features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

FB    Youtube    Pinterest     Instagram    Twitter    email    etsy


PORTFOLIO VIDEO CRITIQUES
Prof Lieu offers video critiques on portfolios for students applying to art school and working artists. More info.


ART DARES
Every month, we assign a topic for you to respond to with an artwork. We give out prizes in several categories!  More info.


ASK THE ART PROF was a written column in the Huffington Post from about art related topics. Visit our Pro Development page.


Related articles
“What are the career opportunities in fine art?”
“How long did it take you to jump start your career after graduation?  What was your first job?”
“Should I pursue a career in fine art?”

Ask the Art Prof: How Can I Tell if I’m Skilled Enough as a Visual Artist?

Scratchboard Project

“I think this would be the most important question that I’d ask a professional in animation, digital design, video games or movie development. How can I tell if I’m skilled enough to focus on the career to get this kind of job? And, do you think I can do it?”

In my opinion, it’s nearly impossible to evaluate your skills all by yourself.  This is a natural part of the creative process; all of us who work in the visual arts have difficulty getting outside of our own heads and seeing our work objectively. I know that for me after working on a piece for several hours that everything looks the same to me and I can’t figure out by myself what needs to happen next.  This is why you need to seek the opinions of industry professionals and other art students to help you figure this out.

If you’re in a degree program, it’s a simple matter of requesting a  more extensive conversation with one of your teachers who works in the industry. But what if you don’t have that?  I would recommend searching online for artists who are working in the fields you’re interested in, as well as students who are enrolled in BFA programs. Analyze their portfolios and ask yourself what it is that they’re doing that you think makes their work successful. Compare your work to theirs and honestly ask yourself whether you think you can hold a candle to what they’re doing.  If the answer is no, then you need to work harder. If the answer is yes, the only way to truly find out if you can get the job is to apply.

Gesture Drawing

To answer your second question, I truly believe that if you make the decision to do it, it can indeed happen if you are willing to back up that decision with a monstrous work ethic, iron clad tenacity, and a complete and utter dedication. Never underestimate the power of working hard; I went to art school at RISD with many people who were ridiculously talented, but who were lazy and never went anywhere with their careers.  On the other hand, I also went to school with many people who worked incredibly hard, who persevered in the most grueling circumstances, and who went on to have very successful careers.

I can guarantee to you that there will be blood, sweat and tears along the way if you commit yourself like this. A serious investment has to be made from the very beginning. Even when things get tough, you have to be willing to push through the obstacles and keep going. If that sounds like something you are willing to dedicate yourself to, then the answer is yes, you can do it.


ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. artprof.org features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

FB    Youtube    Pinterest     Instagram    Twitter    email    etsy


PORTFOLIO VIDEO CRITIQUES
Prof Lieu offers video critiques on portfolios for students applying to art school and working artists. More info.


ART DARES
Every month, we assign a topic for you to respond to with an artwork. We give out prizes in several categories!  More info.


ASK THE ART PROF was a written column in the Huffington Post from about art related topics. Visit our Pro Development page.


Related Videos
Youtube Playlist: Video Critiques on Art School Admissions Portfolios
Youtube Playlist:  How to Draw a Portrait with Charcoal and Cross-Hatching
Youtube Playlist:  Crit Quickies, 1 min. critiques on artworks


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